Controversial Tory councillor back in the headlines again

Barnes Dunkerley on feet shouting in council chamber

It’s been quite a year for Robert John Fairbank Barnes. Born, brought up, educated and spending his entire career in Leeds, working for the City Council, before retiring in 2021.

Twelve months ago, he was campaigning to be elected to Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council in their Chadderton South ward. A perennial failure, he had previously and unsuccessfully stood in that same ward twice and in neighbouring Chadderton Central on five occasions. For reasons that are still unclear, he has never contested the Council ward in which he has lived since at least 2016; Hollinwood.

But May, 2022 was to be a dramatic turning point for Robert Barnes (pictured above in white shirt addressing Oldham Council):

A grotesque on-line smear campaign – described by his Labour Party opponent, Arooj Shah, as ‘dehumanising, racist and misogynistic’ – was conducted on his behalf by a notorious, unemployed, Tameside-based conspiracy theorist, Raja Miah, and an equally objectionable group of supporters whom, appositely, self-style as The Rabble.

Three of The Rabble actually, and most remarkably, stood as Conservative candidates in the same local elections: Another unemployed conspiracy theorist and de facto Rabble Leader, Gary Tarbuck in Royton South (read more here); Khazir Rehman, a convicted criminal who was actually on prison licence at the time stood in Medlock Vale (read more here); and devoted, unemployed Miah cultist, Lynne Kovacs, contested Waterhead. None of those three were elected.

Tarbuck is pictured below with his hand on Cllr Barnes shoulder. Alongside them, at the front right to left, are Cllrs Lewis Quigg, Bethany Sharp and Dave Arnott. The former, another perennial local election failure who also benefited greatly from the smear campaign and his close friendship with Miah and Tarbuck. Cllr Arnott is also embedded within The Rabble.

Rabble and Tories at pub in Derker

The internet smearing of Cllr Shah (as she was then), and the rest of the Oldham Labour Party that she led, conducted via Miah’s various and frequently banned Recusant Nine social media platforms, was supplemented by a leaflet that Barnes and the rest of the Oldham Conservatives denied was anything to do with them (read more here).

In the light of all the available evidence, a claim that few, if any, in the Borough believed.

In Chadderton South, for example, the leaflet was delivered by, amongst others, Miah himself, assisted by Tarbuck and Ms Kovacs. A fact to which Barnes had absolutely no answer.

Moreover, Cllr Sharp, whilst canvassing for the Tories in the ward, told at least two residents, who will attest to the fact, that Cllr Shah ‘is a paedophile protector’. A grotesque slur that has no known basis in facts or evidence and one for which she has yet to apologise or make amends in any other form.

Nonetheless, Robert Barnes was elected to the council by just 92 votes, overturning a large majority from the previous year and amidst unpleasant scenes at the election count at Oldham Civic Centre. Berating the Acting Returning Officer, Harry Catherall, when the latter acceded to a request by Cllr Shah for a re-count. That set the tone for what is likely to be a one year stay in office.

At his second and third appearances in the civic chamber, in June and July, 2022, Cllr Barnes’ conduct caused uproar amongst his councillor colleagues, the paid officer contingent whom, by necessity, were present, the public gallery and those, including the author of this article, Neil Wilby, who was providing a live blog of the proceedings via the Council’s YouTube feed.

At the July meeting, he repeatedly disrespected the Mayor and every other elected Member, but, surprisingly, was not asked to leave the chamber. There were, however, three Standards complaints made against him, and at least one, made by a fellow councillor, was upheld. Forcing Cllr Barnes to make a humiliating public apology at the November, 2022 Full Council meeting (read more here).

In between those July and November meetings Cllr Barnes ‘disappeared’ (read more here) and even since his dramatic re-appearance at the later meeting he does not appear to have functioned effectively as an elected representative for Chadderton South.

The New Year brought further problems for the beleagured councillor as one of his Conservative colleagues, Cllr Max Woodvine, who represents Saddleworth South on Oldham Council, was openly stating that Robert Barnes had been de-selected by the Party in Chadderton South (read more here). The latter is currently on police bail but, for legal reasons, the date and location of the arrest and the alleged offence cannot be disclosed.

The presumption of innocence applies, of course, and Cllr Barnes robustly denies any wrongdoing. For that reason, presumably, and very much contrary to what a number of normally reliable sources were saying at the material time, he was neither suspended or had the Party whip withdrawn as a result of the ongoing police investigation. He faced no Conservative Party sanction over his Standards breach, either.

The outspoken Cllr Woodvine and his mentor, former Conservative Group Leader and Oldham Mayor, John Hudson, describe Cllr Barnes, together with Cllrs Arnott, Quigg and Sharp, as ‘not proper Tories’ (read more here). A sentiment that has proved remarkably popular in Oldham Borough’s political circles, despite Max Woodvine later making a hollow threat of legal action over his claim that he hadn’t, in fact, made that remark about his four councillor colleagues (read more here).

But that approach to sanctions against the elected Member for Chadderton South now, bizarrely, seems to have changed: Following yet another Full Council appearance on 1st March, 2023, Cllr Barnes faces suspension after he abstained from a vote on a Conservative motion amending the Labour Party’s budget for the coming municipal year. He told the Mayor and the rest of the civic chamber that he was ‘putting people before party politics’.

On this particular occasion and to use the idiom, he was bang on the money about the ‘reckless and uncaring’ Tory budget proposals. To prove the point, they were repeatedly ridiculed around the chamber by Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors and, elsewhere, on social media.

There was immediate disquiet amongst Tory colleagues at this show of apparent disloyalty as they went into huddles outside the chamber. The upshot appears to have been a vote as to whether Cllr Barnes should be suspended or not.

But, both he and the Group Leader, Cllr Graham Sheldon, poor communicators at the best of times (read more here), remain tight-lipped over the latest farrago and did not respond to an email from Neil Wilby Media requesting a statement clarifying the situation.

Neither the Council Leader, Cllr Amanda Chadderton, nor the senior paid officer contingent purportedly running Oldham Council, are aware of any change in political circumstances that would mean, at the very least, that one of the two parties who share the role of Joint Opposition would lose that status.

But his principal supporter and promoter, Raja Miah, told his Recusant Nine followers in a YouTube broadcast on Friday 10th March, 2023 that Cllr Barnes, as far as he knew, was suspended by the Conservative Party and his political career with them was over.

The last Full Council meeting of the current municipal year takes place on 15th March, 2023 and it may well be that, tactically, the Conservatives opt for the sanctions status quo until after that session has concluded. Thus preserving the generous allowances and expenses that councillors receive under Joint Opposition arrangements.

Whichever way that falls, it promises to be another lively Oldham Council meeting as news of the Tory disenchantment with Cllr Barnes, unpopular to begin with, is now widely known across the benches of the other Parties and the independents.

UPDATE: A post-retirement sinecure with the troubled Rochdale Boroughwide Housing does not appear on what is otherwise a copious Robert Barnes LinkedIn profile. Amongst other matters, and the usual courtesy of right of reply, he has been asked to clarify that situation. More crucially for the Oldham Borough electorate, Cllr Barnes has been asked if he intends to stand for election in May, 2023 and, if so, under whose flag.

FURTHER UPDATE: Cllr Barnes did not respond to either the offer of a right to reply afforded him or any of the following public interest questions:

1. If he is still employed by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing.

2. If he is standing in Oldham’s May 2023 local elections.

3. If the answer to 2. is yes, (a) under whose Party banner (b) in which ward.

4. If he is still on police bail.

5. If he has been notified of a suspension by the Oldham and Saddleworth Conservatives

Could he also please clarify in the intersts of transparency:

6. An anomaly appears to exist with the Electoral Register concerning his home address. He was registered there from 2016, his wife was registered there from 2006.

Cllr Barnes lack of candour is disappointing. Not least in the light of his own albeit limited and truncated output both on social media, and in the council chamber, being predicated on almost entirely that self-same criticism of others.

Page last updated Friday 10th March, 2023 at 1420hrs

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Picture credits: Oldham Council

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© Neil Wilby 2015-2023. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby Media, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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